Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

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Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Well-written, wonderfully observed, full of dark wit, a contemporary issue - Amsterdam promises a great deal. Indeed, the Booker judges felt that it delivered a great deal. Here at Bookbag, we remain sadly unengaged by a cold book that, while we appreciated it, failed to move us.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099535130

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A Booker Prizewinner, Amsterdam opens in typical McEwan fashion, at a funeral, and as usual, you're immediately struck by the accurate and unpleasant observation that is a particular skill of his. As the book's two protagonists; Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor, walk along talking in that awful desultory yet stilted fashion that is the way of funerals this is where you find them:

They wandered into an arrangement of oval rose beds, marked by a sign, 'The Garden Of Remembrance'. Each plant had been savagely cut back to within a few inches of the frozen ground... The patch of lawn was strewn with flattened cigarette butts, for this was a place where people came to stand about and wait for the funeral party ahead of theirs to clear the building.

As I said - typically McEwan; it's not a pleasant description is it? But I'm sure you can imagine it, it's so close to the bone. The funeral is that of Molly Lane. She's the reason Clive and Vernon are hanging about in that euphemistically-named garden. Molly was a socialite, a columnist, a lover of life and the erstwhile lover of both men. She may be dead but in this book hers is the character with all the verve and enthusiasm. She's also the posthumous instigator of events; everything that happens in Amsterdam hinges on the relationship Molly had with its four main characters. She died nastily and sadly, poor Molly, victim of a horrible dementia. Shortly after the funeral Clive and Vernon decide that should either of them ever face a similar situation the other would not allow such an awful decline. They make a pact, a pact of mercy killing, of euthanasia. Are you beginning to guess yet? Hence the title you see - euthanasia is legal in Amsterdam.

You should know the other people in the book. There is George Lane, Molly's widower - staid, sensible, pompous, priggish and hated by Clive and Vernon. There is Julian Garmony, the 'bring back the birch, hang 'em, shoot 'em, flog 'em' Foreign Secretary with ambitions for the premiership. But really, most of all, there is Molly, always there in spirit - vivacious, outrageous, but always loving and without her it seems that everything simply starts to fall apart. Both Clive and Vernon are high achievers; they are successful, established, esteemed, wealthy but all is not rosy for either of them. Clive is composing the Millennial Symphony, the work of music that will commemorate the coming thousand-year anniversary. He must find inspiration for his deadline approaches. Vernon is proprietor of an old, broadsheet newspaper with a declining circulation. He must save it and soon, but how?

Both men find the opportunity to rescue their situations - but at a price. Clive finds inspiration but leaves a heinous crime unreported. Vernon finds the circulation booster he needs but it's at the cost of dragging his paper and his integrity into the gutter with the rest of the press he feigns to despise. Sadly neither can see the crushing of the men they once were, or at least had once aspired to be. Selfish and self-absorbed, arrogant and blind, they justify their actions to themselves with the pride and self-deception of the successful. The two men fall out over these disastrous moral decisions. Each can see the other's actions for what they are, but they can't see their own. They spend their time in cringing self-justification and bitter, critical appraisal of the other. It's ugly and unpleasant reading at times. Events press ahead and the book moves fast. Will Clive complete his symphony in time? Will Vernon publish his scandal and will it save The Judge? The denouement takes place, of course, in Amsterdam - the city where euthanasia is legal. I'm not telling you any more.

I'm sad to say that, Booker Prize or not, I came away from reading Amsterdam both times feeling rather needy. I can't help but feel it's missing something. It's not that it's so dark. I like dark. It's not that the characters are unsympathetic. Dark humour, horrid little people in books - they can make you burn with indignation and feel guiltily uncomfortable for your amusement if they are there to make a point which is vicious but satirical.

McEwan has a point to make. It's a point about selfishness, egotism and the sacrifice of principle and also one about getting older. Clive and Vernon are getting older and they behave very badly but they're not entirely dreadful. Some of the passages that describe Clive composing his music are really beautiful and those that show Vernon's sense of dislocation are sad and unsettling. Sometimes you feel almost sorry for them. But the clever, complicated plot won't quite let you. It won't allow you to laugh at them either. It's too busy being clever and complicated. So somehow the characters and the story don't meet. Clive and Vernon aren't really making the author's point - they are being sacrificed to it.

Amsterdam is a short book, under two hundred pages long, and reading it won't be a waste of your time. McEwan is a great writer and the book has almost everything - an intelligent and masterful structure, frighteningly accurate observation and an amazing skill with language. It's a real page-turner and a good idea too. It's clever, it's ironic, it's satirical but it's just not engaging enough. For me, at least, reading Amsterdam was like reading a pyrotechnic exercise in writing talent but one that lacked heart, even a McEwan black heart. I felt none of the author's exhilaration in the task of storytelling. It's a shame really but this is why, had the decision to award the Booker Prize been in my hands, I wouldn't have given it to Amsterdam, good though it is. Sorry Ian.

If you like this pyrotechnic, clever style of writing, Bookbag preferred Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.

Booklists.jpg Amsterdam by Ian McEwan is in the Booker Prize Winners.

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Bonnita said:

Just read the book AND absolutely agree!!! One doubts one's own response to a book which is short-listed and of course I did : knee-jerk reaction 'There's something wrong with ME!'

Soooo relieved that some-one else out there (my husband, a neurologist (!!!) liked it), also feels it's 'slightness'.

Viva! Viva! Viva! Bookbag

Bonnita from South Africa